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Michelob Ultra Challenge, Year Three

February 27, 2013

Gasp13 medals2013 Michelob Ultra Challenge

February 23 & 24, 2013
Bib Number: 969
Overall Placement: 142 / 397 (35.8%)
Age Group Placement: 9 / 37 (24.3%)
Gender Placement: 47 / 166 (28.3%)
Chip Time: 4:42:37

This is my third year running all four races in Tampa’s Gasparilla Distance Classic. The Michelob Ultra Challenge involves running the 15k and 5k on Saturday, then returning Sunday to run the half marathon and 8k. I get a little better each year at managing the event, which is so different from just running one race as hard as you can. Running this many races in a short span of time requires a careful management of speed at each race, but also nutrition, sleep, hydration, and activity during down time between races.

Little G and I knew this year would present a unique challenge because we’ve only had three weeks of recovery since running the Tallahassee Marathon. She and I both felt like we really needed the recovery time following that race; we ran those 26 miles so hard, pushing our bodies to their absolute limit, that in the days that followed we found it very difficult to run at all. We knew, therefore, that asking our bodies to race thirty miles in two days, just twenty-one days post-marathon, was a lot. We agreed to run every race kind of easy, and that our goal was simply not to log a DNF. But we each knew we weren’t going to beat our times from last year, especially as it became obvious that the weather was not going to be cool, as it was in Tally, but hot and humid instead.

Arrival and Check-in

We arrived in Tampa on Friday, having driven across the state in a leisurely way. We checked into our hotel and headed to the expo, where we completed packet pick up and checked out all the vendors’ stands. Though for most races Little G makes us ziti so we don’t have to worry about dinner, we had already decided to settle for the hotel’s pasta buffet for this year, and we’re glad we did. The buffet was well-stocked with both pasta and protein sources, and since we weren’t worried about running fast, we didn’t have to be as cautious about our diets. I still stayed away from eating too many veggies, and made sure to eat a healthy serving of pasta. Mostly, we drank generous servings of water. An unidentified class of rodent had chewed through a wire at Tampa’s water processing station earlier in the day, so the entire city was under a boil-water order. The hotel had bottled water everywhere, for which we were more than thankful. Upon returning to our room we laid out our gear, watched a little TV via Netflix, and turned in for the night.

Saturday, 6:45am: the 15k

We only had a two-block walk to gear check and then another two-block walk to the race start, so we didn’t get up super early. (It’s amazing how much less stress you feel when you know you’re not racing for time!) We shared a cup of coffee in the hotel, then walked over to check our bags while we nursed some water. It was warm enough, even before 6, that we didn’t need any throw-away long sleeves, and we were already walking in our tanks and shorts. Checking our gear and getting settled into the chute was easy; this race is always well-organized, though it is getting larger each year. As we stood in the chute, taking a pre-race gel, we discussed race strategy. I dreamed of running nine-minute miles across the weekend; Little G just wanted to finish, though she knew she wasn’t going to be setting any records. We also briefly discussed our nutrition/hydration plan. I vividly remembered Tally, where I had finished dehydrated and in pain, and with that in mind I was planning to take more sodium-replacement Endurolytes than I had during the marathon. I was also conscious that if I took too much water, I’d just be flushing all the minerals out, so though it was a warm day, I was already planning to take water only at every other water station.

We started the 15k together, but got separated quickly. Little G’s strategy for making it through the many miles of the weekend was to listen to her music; I had brought my ipod with me, but I found myself distracted by the many other runners on the course, and I always wanted to leave the option of putting in my music for the next mile, when I was sure I would feel worse. I ran past two women who were running the challenge together, and heard the more experienced runner telling the other, “This is the only one we push on. All the others we take really easy,” and thought, “Honey, if you push too hard on this one, you won’t have any easy for the next three.” But I kept my mouth shut. Each year, I find I don’t know what’s waiting for me as I line up for that last race.

Nine miles felt like a long way to go, and I worried about the half marathon on Sunday. But, I reminded myself, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, and the only way to run thirty miles is to run the mile you’re in. I never did catch Little G–in fact, I didn’t see her again until the finish–but I somehow found the energy to hold my nine-minute miles for this race. When we finished we had a little less than an hour to get back in the chute.

My results at the 15k: 1:23:53, or 8:59 pace. Slowest mile was in the dead middle, of course, a 9:22 mile six, but I finished with an 8:33 push. 1291 of 4919 finishers, and top 20% in my age group.

Saturday, 9am: the 5k

It was a huge relief to know, as I returned to the corral, that I only had a little over three miles to run. As Little G said, we never get up for less than four! We both said we were going to run this one incredibly easy–maybe ten-minute miles. We were drenched, not just with sweat but from pouring water over our heads to keep ourselves cool. We’d both stuck with our hydration strategy and were already planning not to take any water on the 5k course–after all, it takes the body more than twenty minutes to absorb any water–but were pushing fluids as we waited for the gun.

Ten-minute miles were not happening, it turns out, as the race got underway; I was running sub-9 as soon as we left the chute, and Little G was on my heels. The knowledge that I only had to go three miles fueled me, and I grabbed water at the aid station to throw over myself. It was incredibly warm and humid. The race has a large field (in fact, some people were still finishing the 15k as we departed), and we were all struggling in the heat of the day. It was so good to finish and know I was done for the day.

I was happy to finish in 27:31, or 8:48 pace, with splits of 8:54, 8:42, and 8:42. My speed was good enough, in the large field, for a top 12% overall and a top 5% finish in both my gender and age group.

Saturday, post-race

Both Little G and I felt a little cranky and headachy as we finished the 5k. We got our bags from gear check and felt better as soon as we got out of our wet shirts and stinky running shoes, exchanging them for dry shirts and flip flops. We made up our protein drinks, then settled in for the post-race massages we’d signed up for before heading up to the hotel for showers. Post-showers, it was time to head to Ybor via the trolley, to get the best Cuban food available from Columbia Restaurant. We decided to bring it back to the hotel, so we got to eat it in our yoga pants and scuzzy t-shirts, and are glad we did. We took it easy the rest of the day, going down for gelatto later in the afternoon and settling into bed again around 9pm.

Sunday, 6am: half marathon

The idea of running a half marathon sounded incredibly intimidating. My legs weren’t sore, exactly, but I knew I’d put twelve fast-ish miles on them the day before, and I also knew that, since starting marathon training under Fern’s tutelage, I hadn’t run on back-to-back days since September. Asking my body to run eighteen miles was going to be a tall order, indeed.

Adding to the challenge, it was very hot again, and felt even more humid. Storms were forecast, and dark clouds were gathering. We thought we were sure to get wet at some point during the 13.1 miles. From the start, my goal was to keep my pace consistent at 9-minute miles. To do that, I knew I had to be happy with getting passed at the start, since some of the pace teams had started behind me and were obviously making up ground, running at a much faster pace. I kept glancing at my Garmin, checking my pace, and telling myself to be content being sifted, as long as my pace was my own. I really didn’t want anyone else setting my pace–not even the 9-minute pacer.

It was brutally hot, though, and I knew I had to swallow some mineral-replacement tablets at least every other mile if I was going to be standing at the end of the race. By mile 7, I had a bigger problem–my quads were on fire. I couldn’t afford paralyzing cramps; I still had this race to finish and a five-miler that didn’t start until 9. I started walking through every aid station. At some, I would take in water and swallow Endurolytes; at others, I would throw the water over my quads, trying to soothe them into functioning. While running, my pace stayed fairly consistent at about 9-minute miles, but it suffered overall. All the same, the lead I had gained on Little G during our early five-mile jaunt onto Davis Island grew; I saw her at the turnaround, but she never caught me, and I would finish the race about three minutes ahead of her.

When all the numbers were in, my chip showed I ran the half in 2:01:20, or a 9:15 overall pace. It’s still good enough for top third overall, top 20% among women and in my age group.

Sunday, 9am: the 8k

Little G and I both finished the half in sad shape. We were toasted in every sense: my quads were sore and tired, and though I hadn’t felt them cramp yet, I had that sense of misfiring in them that I knew precedes the cramping. We were, of course, soaked through like rats, and though we’d taken a gel to keep our energy up during the half, and knew we could probably do with more calories for this last race, neither of us could stomach the idea of eating. But we also had things to celebrate: we were both still sweating profusely, so we knew we were not yet dehydrated. We were also still thinking clearly enough to plan our hydration to every other aid station, so fuzzy-headed thinking, another symptom of bonking, was also not with us yet. We had each seen athletes fall victim to the heat on the course, so we knew we were blessed to still be standing. We considered the possibility of a DNF, but decided we’d rather walk the 8k if we had to than not finish. We changed our shirts and got back in the chute.

We were not the only challengers who were in pain, and we knew we had likely done ourselves in by signing up for the challenge so soon after racing a marathon. But we were determined to finish this last race, even if we didn’t do so particularly well. I reminded Little G that I had been the one in paralyzing pain two years ago, and told her that in my experience, our legs would actually feel better once we started moving. She seemed unconvinced.

The gun went off, and so did we. Right away, my goal became to run the distance. But I knew it was going to be a tough challenge. I was very tired, and my left shin was now joining my quads in calling for a cease-fire. I tried to quiet them by throwing water on them at the aid stations, but I was determined to keep moving. As I walked through one aid station, Little G caught up with me, and said, “I’m right behind you. Keep moving.” We went through the turnaround and I couldn’t believe how long the road ahead seemed; the humidity was so intense it felt like we were running in a sauna. Then, at about mile three, the sun came out, and the temperature rose instantly. I pulled on my shades and kept moving.

I was tempted to walk. I had nothing to prove. Two miles from the finish, I’d still get my medal, even if it took me thirty minutes to finish those last two miles. But, here’s the thing: one of the things I learned in Tally is that I need to develop more mental toughness before I can defeat the 26.2 beast. When exhaustion and dehydration and sheer mental deadness take over, it takes a mind of steel to keep running when you’d rather quit. You see, nothing keeps you from walking–it’s a perfectly acceptable option. Reasonable, even. At Tally, in the last five miles, running often brought me to tears with cramps. But that was not true at Gasparilla. I was tired and hurting and I wanted to quit. But I wasn’t hurt. So I made myself keep running. I told myself that, until my next 26.2, this was the best marathon training I was going to get–the mental training of not quitting under the incredible duress of the sun bearing down on me, the 28 miles I had already run, the agonizing deadness of my legs, and the overwhelming desire to walk.

Make no mistake: I didn’t run fast. But I ran every mile of that 8k. I finished it with a chip time of 49:52, or an average pace of 9:59. Not surprisingly, it was my least competitive finish, and I didn’t crack the top third of the field, though I did make it into the top third in both my gender and age group.

When I was finished, I was again almost helpless with exhaustion, as after the marathon, and so drained that I was immediately close to tears. I was thankful, again, to have shared this with Little G, and to have conquered the distance in spite of all the challenges we’d faced.  And thankful, so thankful, to be done.

My training log says I’ve run 70.7 miles this month, and a full 56.7 of those have been racing miles. I unpacked my running shoes on Sunday and have not seen them yet; my running clothes remain folded. There will be no more miles added this month. It has been a good season, and now it’s time for rest.

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